Dharavi, one of the largest slums in Asia, has become a significant feature in both Bollywood and Hollywood movies. Movies such as ‘Slumdog Millionaire’, ‘Salaam Bombay!’, ‘Traffic Signal’, and ‘Parinda’ have chosen to set their stories within the context of Dharavi. With an area of just 2.1 km2 and a population of around 1 million people, Dharavi seems to have captured global attention as a prime example of the hardships of life in such conditions.
In the book Filmurbia: Screening the Suburbs, the authors dive into the different representations of Dharavi in the media and whether they do it justice. They describe Dharavi as having been ‘widely portrayed in the media as a filthy piece of land, a city inside a city’, yet Dharavi is not as big as Karachi’s Orangi Township that hosts over 1 million people living in abject poverty. Filmurbia claims that the superficial ways in which Dharavi is depicted isn’t necessarily a realistic reflection of its landscape. Nestled between two suburban railway lines, Dharavi houses traditional pottery and textile industries and has 5000 businesses and 15 000 single-room factories. These micro-businesses not only generate a large estimated turnover of $600 million to $1 billion per year but also export to the USA, Europe and the Middle East. Environmentalists have called Dharavi the ‘green lung of Mumbai’ because it is able to recycle large amounts of waste and repurpose it to make useful products. However, this side of Dharavi is hardly portrayed in mainstream media, and the dangers of this are illustrated poignantly by Sanjukta Gosh:
‘In this Orientalist/popular conceptualization, India is spectacularized as a unitary and fixed space- jungle-like, barbarous, remote and dark. It is a vision of India as a static, frozen in space and time, primordial, without a history- as opposed to the west, which is dynamic and a repository of history and change.’ (Goosh 2003: 274)
As pointed out by Gosh, the Orientalist lens through which Dharavi is portrayed is perpetuated in films including ‘Slumdog Millionaire’, ‘Salaam Bombay!’, and ‘Slumming It’.
Slumdog Millionaire, Danny Boyle’s 2008 fairy tale about an impoverished street kid with big dreams, was set in Dharavi, a place a film critic once described as “where lost children and dogs sift through trash so fetid you swear you can smell the discarded mango as well as its peel.” Danny Boyle’s films reflect his worldview; that in every desperate and dark story, there is humour and humanity to be found. Aided by a seductive cinematography that eloquently portrays the joyfulness he chooses to focus on, he deftly pulled off the same feat in Slumdog Millionaire, where a tragic story set against a backdrop of such squalor managed to be upbeat and uplifting at the same time. Nonetheless, a one dimensional portrayal of Dharavi by an English director can be seen as an example of an Orientalist perspective, and an imposition of a Western point of view that pushes negative stereotypes about poverty in India. Social activist Nicholas Almeida protested the film claiming that it ‘intentionally exploited the poor for the purposes of profit’. ‘Salaam Bombay!’, similarly, aims to elicit pity yet disdain for the slum dwellers by choosing to focus on child labour and highlighting the dark underbelly of Dharavi.
In contrast to other motion pictures, Gully Boy takes a different approach in its depiction of Dharavi. Gully Boy tells the story of 22 year old Murad who struggles to escape the slum life through rapping. From his parents working hard to get him an education so that he can work a white collar job, to him starting a rap career, the movie truly tries to encapsulate every aspect of the infamous Dharavi slum. Through both music and film, Gully Boy shows the terrors, wonders, and inequalities of modern day Mumbai. As opposed to many other films, Gully Boy is deemed to be extremely realistic in its depiction of Dharavi. Director Zoya Akhtar made a point to film nearly the whole movie inside Dharavi itself so as to make the movie as authentic as possible. The main theme that the director tries to bring out within the movie that does not appear in others is hope. The feeling that people can climb out of poverty whether it be through the underground rap scene or by simply getting an education is powerfully conveyed in the film. Gully Boy shows that Dharavi is not just a grubby wasteland but actually a breeding ground of opportunity.
When it comes to putting Dharavi on the global radar, its portrayal in pop culture should be shifted from peripheral and superficial depictions of poverty to focusing as well on the booming businesses and recycling ventures it boasts of. SNEHA (Society for Nutrition, Education and Health Action) a non- profit operating in Mumbai organized an exhibition in 2015 aimed at blending art and science to share information on urban health and to show the ways in which Dharavi slum dwellers contribute to Mumbai’s culture and economy. Architect Venkat Ashok, who contributed furniture made out of recycled materials to the exhibition said ‘We were always interested and amazed in the way Dharavi functions as a unit. It’s a self-sufficient community’. This is another side of Dharavi that deserves to be showcased in mainstream media, and would add more dimension and depth to future films or other artistic projects based in the slum.